87-year-old British woman recalls when she named Pluto

January 17, 2006 20:55
3 minute read.

A retired English schoolteacher named Venetia Burney Phair - who dreamed up the name for the heavenly body of Pluto 76 years ago when she was 11 years old and having breakfast at home - is alive today and excited about the launch of NASA's robotic probe. "I don't quite know why I suggested it. I think it was on March 14th, 1930 and I was having breakfast with my mother and my grandfather. And my grandfather read out ... the great news [of the discovery of the planet] and said he wondered what it would be called," Phair said in an interview given last week on the NASA Web site (at www.nasa.gov). "And for some reason, I after a short pause, said, 'Why not call it Pluto? I was fairly familiar with Greek and Roman legends from various children's books that I had read, and of course I did know about the solar system and the names the other planets have. And so I suppose I just thought that this was a name that hadn't been used. And there it was. The rest was entirely my grandfather's work. Her grandfather, Falconer Madan, was a retired librarian at Bodleian at the University of Oxford who had a lot of friends who were astronomers. He suggested the name "Pluto" to the astronomer Herbert Hall Turner, who then in turn cabled the idea to the American astronomers at the Lowell Observatory. Turner had been Astronomer Royal and was a professor at Oxford. "On the day it was suggested, my grandfather dropped a note to him. He was at Oxford that day, attending a meeting in London of the Royal Astronomical Society. They were all thinking about names, but for some reason, none of them thought of Pluto." Phair said she had not thought deeply about naming it Pluto because of its connection with Greek and Roman mythology and it referring to the god of the underworld. "I don't think I doubt if I was as subtle as that. I just thought it was a name that hadn't been used so far, and might be an obvious one to have." Pluto was formally given its name in May of that year. "It was very exciting for a small girl really at the time." Her grandfather collected newspaper clippings about it and collected them in two scrapbooks that she still treasures. The retired teacher has another family connection to space: Her great uncle Henry Madan named the moons of Mars Phobos and Deimos. She added that she had never seen Pluto through a telescope, but had seen photos. "I believe that the BBC when it does its coverage of the launch, it may slip in … a small interview with me. But on the whole, it doesn't arise in conversation, and you don't just go around telling people that you named Pluto. But quite a lot of friends know and are interested."

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